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oliver-kay-forever-youngHere at Lillabullero we don’t usually splash a book’s cover all over the column but I love this photograph.  Adrian Doherty could be a manchild out of mythology or folk balladry – he walked, nay played, with giants, but was happy singing and playing with the little people; there’s probably a William Butler Yeats poem could be applied to him.  The photo on the book jacket is him outside the Manchester United training ground, a 16-year-old apprentice, a Catholic from Strabane in Northern Ireland, a contemporary of the Class of ’92 – Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy that lot.

He’d read Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – by the time he was 9.  He deliberately flunked a chemistry exam at school – Give an example of a solvent.” “An example of a solvent is Sherlock Holmes.” – determined not to be herded away from the humanities subjects he loved.  Oliver Kay‘s Forever young: the story of Adrian Doherty, football’s lost genius (Quercus, 2016) is full of stories like that; he’s talked to family, school friends, team mates, Manchester United staff, musical chums and fellow seekers after the meaning of life to create a wonderful picture of the short life of a lovely young man, strangely and uniquely lived.

Like his dad, Adrian was a huge Bob Dylan fan.  If they were available to embed, this piece would have kicked off bob_dylan_-_planet_waveswith a YouTube of the fast version of Dylan’s beautiful Forever young, closing track on side one – yes, vinyl – of the hugely under-rated Planet Waves, his last recordings with The Band.  And it would have closed with the handshake of the slow deadly serious version of the song that opens side two.  Because this is a sad, sad tale. 

A footballing genius, on the verge of a first team appearance, Adrian Doherty’s career ended with the sort of injury – ‘a proximal tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee’ – that only a few years later would probably not have been career-ending, that improved treatment techniques and surgical improvements might well have sorted out.  But one of the saddest things is, when he died (pulled out of a canal, in a coma for a month), if they knew about it at all, the presumptions of those he had known at Man U.  Early morning on his way to work in The Hague, officially accidental death, no suspicious circumstances, had transmuted, urban legend-like, into – of course – failed footballer, late night, drink and drugs, Amsterdam.  Because obviously being released from a club is, like, the end of the world.  In fact, his brother Gareth says, “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from twenty to twenty-six, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life.”

So many things to say.  Invent a fictional Adrian Doherty and he would not be believed outside of the fantasy genre.  Roy of the Rovers as written by Neil Gaiman, say, or a character out of a Herman Hesse novel.  He was a seeker.  If there’s not a better ballad or song in the tradition, then there’s Spencer the Rover – John Martyn did a lovely version of it – which nearly fits well enough:

  • adrian-doherty-2he was a young footballer without ego.  Imagine that.  “Courage, speed and skill“, said Alex Ferguson.  As well as his skills, others note his bravery.  1990/91 season he’s training with the reserves, a year ahead of Ryan Giggs.  One year into his two-year apprenticeship he gets offered a 5-year professional contract; Giggs had to wait the full two years.  He tells Alex Ferguson (!) he’d prefer it to be just one year, if you don’t mind, because he’s not sure what he wants to be doing that far ahead.  He – fortunately given the injury that came not long after – compromises on three.
  • Life at Man U with the older guys (and doubtless at most other clubs): there was a dark side to it in those days.  Traditionally the apprentices had to put up with initiation ceremonies and indignities involving marine-style bullying, forfeits, vicious banter and a forced exhibitionism .  Paul Scholes tells Kay about it: ” ‘Oh I hated it, yeah,’ he said. ‘It got stopped around our year, actually, all the stuff you had to do. I think one of the players’ parents complained and that was it.’  How bad can unspeakable be? ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘You would be in trouble for it these days, some of the stuff that went on. Seriously.’ ”  After a sticky time, and homesickness, Adrian survived.
  • Life at Man U with the Class of ’92: “Doherty’s preference for an Aran jumper, tracksuit bottoms and battered trainers had always earned him strange looks“.  An apprentice who lodged with him says, “To us footballers, Doc seemed different because he wasn’t bothered about fashion and he never had any cares in the world … [Beckham] read FHM. Doc had no interest in that. He would sit there reading books – big wow – and he would always wear the same clothes and trainers. Becks and John O’Kane would drive to training in their new cars even if they only lived round the corner. I used to walk and I would get there before they had turned on the engine. Doc would come in on a bike – an old bike … I’m not even sure it had gears.”  In a letter to a friend in Strabane he lamented “nearly all the apprentices are U2 fans and none of them are hip so I can’t go to the same places as them on Saturday nights or anything.”  He was never ostracised, was liked well enough, not least for his skill, but he never really bonded.

‘I remember one of the lads asking him what he thought of the Chelsea game a couple of weeks earlier. Adrian genuinely didn’t have a clue. He was more interested in talking about reading, playing the guitar. It wasn’t a conversation you would have with a footballer. It was books, films, philosophy, music. Everyone then sat down to listen to him play the guitar.’

Away from the pitch, Doherty remained a mystery. Everyone recognised and revered his talent, but no one could quite understand his character. [… said a housemate, years later]: ‘On the pitch, he wanted the ball, he wanted to express himself and he knew what he was about. He was brave too, as tough as old boots. Off the pitch he was completely different. The word that comes to mind is “enigma”. He would love this, but, to me, he was just like Bob Dylan. It was like having Bob Dylan in a No.7 shirt.’

  • He bought a typewriter – “one of those old-fashioned ones“, says his landlady – with his first team win bonus (even though as a sub he wasn’t used) .  He’d started a novel: The adventures of Humphrey and Bodegarde, the characters looking for the meaning of life, was writing poetry and – he’d already bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play from books – songs.
  • So while his contemporaries at Man U were out shopping or clubbing, he was busking, or going to open-mic nights at places like the New Troubadour Club, where David Gray started out.  Says the organiser: ‘It was a place for singer-songwriters. It was an acoustic venue, no electric. It was dingy, smoky, a perfect place for gigs. We would get maybe ten or fifteen artists a night.’  Unassuming, Adrian kept his lives apart; no-one on the music scene realised he was a footballer, never mind pne of the most exciting prospects in the city.  He was to work on songs like An oblivious history (there’s an abridged version of the lyrics in the book’s appendix), which references less than respectfully Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer), John the Baptist, Macbeth, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Muhammad Ali and even Bob Dylan.   Another, called Philosophying, is full of witty self-awareness, with a last line going, “But it aint an easy life philosophying“.  And even his team-mates remember the song Gotta kill a chicken by Tuesday.  He and his mate Leo Cussons spent a summer in New York – the Greenwich Village thing – playing wherever they could.

So how would Cussons describe the professional footballer whom he and the others on the Manchester music scene came to know as ‘McHillbilly’ as they played in a short-lived band called the Mad Hatters? ‘Brilliant,’ he says. I don’t know anything about football, so I can’t comment on that, but he was one of those extraordinarily talented individuals you come across very rarely in life.’

He takes the ending of his contract with equanimity and seemingly without resentment.  One friend says, ‘I don’t remember Aidy ever being angry or frustrated about anything.’   Another says, ‘I honestly think he was OK with it. Not OK with getting injured, but he did quite quickly come to terms with the fact that he might not play professional football again […]  it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him any more […] it helped him that, with his music and his reading and writing, he didn’t have all his eggs in one basket.’  And so he moves, seemingly randomly, to Preston, working in a chocolate factory where he doesn’t volunteer his past.  From the Theatre of Dreams to strawberry creams is Hall’s chapter head.  He stays two and a half years.  He keeps in touch with his old Strabane mates, some now at uni in England.  He sees his old musical chum Leo in London and Holland:

‘On one visit, it would be all philosophical discussions. On the next Doherty would be dismissive of all that, gnosis included, and would be wanting to turn the clock back to those wild nights playing to the crowds in New York’s East Village in the summer of ’92.’

He’s briefly back in Strabane, then feels another move is due.  It’s a toss-up between Dublin and Galway; the latter wins on a short-term travel practicality:

‘It’s the type of place where he would just blend in,’ Sean Fitzgerald, who met him in Galway, says. ‘He didn’t stand out. You’re surrounded by music and culture there, which was what he liked. You’re allowed to be a sort of vagabond, really, just writing poetry and music and having conversations about philosophy or whatever. He blended in, playing his music, writing his songs.’

Kathy Maloney, a young woman who knew him well, says:

He was never really interested in making a living. He didn’t want money at all. He would see how long he could live on IR£5 … Money just didn’t interest him at all.  “He wasn’t motivated by a career in the same way most people see a career. He wasn’t interested in material gain or getting recognition. But whatever he did , he would take great pleasure from it and he liked to master it. The main mission in his life was to achieve enlightenment.”

From talking with friends, colleagues and relations, Kay paints the picture of a young man who throughout his short life could be happily self-contained, and yet was far from ever being a recluse.  If he didn’t drink much he was still up for a craic, for fellowship.  They say he could get along with anyone, not a bad word is reported (though coaches complain of a certain vagueness off the pitch – they would).  He goes for long walks in Manchester, in the countryside around Galway.  It was on one of these, just before the move to the Netherlands – time for a change again – that an old friend from Strabane, driving along a country road sees him and:

… picks him up by chance walking in the rain: ‘… he was still talking about his poems and his songwriting. He was never concerned about money and things like that. He was on great form. Whenever I think of Adrian, I think of his amazing smile. It was infectious. He was smiling that day.’

Forever young is a lovely book, a curious tale of our near times, written by a football reporter out of fascination and love.  I’d say it’s worth reading even if you only have a minimal interest in the game.  So much affection.  Heartening, beautiful, and a good kind of sad.

Could it have been any different?

He might have joined Arsenal.  They were interested, he talked to them, they were an established destination for young Irish footballers.  The injury might not have happened.  And he might have had someone to talk  to about Bob Dylan.

liam-brady-1976-aug-arsenal-v-bristol-city-005Funny how some little things stick in your mind over time.  Reading Forever young delivered this memory of my younger days.  The mid-’70s, when I was living in London, the period that was my most active time as a ‘real’ football supporter.  Well, I went to a few matches.  But it was only Highbury I went to repeatedly – it was the easiest to get to, and I had a mate living close to the stadium.  I became one of the missing millions when hooliganism became a problem.  Nevertheless, an affection for Arsenal developed that has stayed with me, doubled in spades since the exquisite football – poetry in motion, though sadly not consistently – of the Arsene Wenger years.

Anyway, back to the ’70s.  This was still the era of the Metropolitan Police Band at half-time, and the seasons I saw most games in were, as it happens, the two worst in Arsenal’s history, a long time before and since.  But a young team was building, and it was obvious that Liam Brady was a special talent.  And here’s the thing I remember: he was featured in a match programme and there was a photograph of him – the one you see now, due to the wonders of Google image search – sprawled on the floor with some of his LPs.  Only – almost unprecedented – prominently including Dylan’s Blonde on blonde and Blood on the tracks (plus albums by Thin Lizzy and Horslips, another significant Irish band).  Like I say, special.

That match programme was, I discover, the opening game of the season, August 21st, 1976, against newly promoted Bristol City.  Yup.  And the visitors won 0-1.  It was Malcolm McDonald’s debut for Arsenal, Alan Ball was still playing, and a personal fave – probably the best English footballer never to get an England cap – Geordie Armstrong was on the wing … I could go on with all sorts of relevant football trivia.  But the thought intrigues: Adrian Doherty was offered his apprenticeship at Old Trafford in 1987, while Brady didn’t hang up his boots until 1990.  I like to think of the possibility of them swapping Dylan quotes, talking of situations, at the training ground, in another parallel universe.

 

 

 

 

 

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… Dennis Bergkamp, who had the unique gift of slowing down time on the field of play […] one night at St James’ Park fashioned a goal of such bewildering beauty that, no matter how often you saw it, it lost none of its miraculous quality – just like the closing stanza of Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’ never fails to hit the target, whether it is the first time you read it, or the hundredth.

Lonely at the topThierry Henry: Lonely at the top: a biography (Macmillan, 2012) is not your normal football biography, then.  Now factor in that the writer is French – albeit an Arsenal fan – and it’s an interesting ride indeed.  Not that there’s much more of the literary stuff – though. yes, that first sub-title does reference the Randy Newman song – but Philippe Auclair can be eloquent enough in his own right, like in this footnote: “France’s progress [qualifying for the Euros in 2000] had been as laboured as this paragraph.

Auclair’s approach is detached, but while his position on his subject is ambivalent there are – no bad thing – wobbles.  As a football journalist he has had a lot of contact with Thierry Henry over the years, he says, but he could not call him a friend, nor want to be.

Thierry was not an easy footballer to feel genuine affection for, regardless of how much you admired, even revered him. He was not an artist in Eric Cantona’s mould. He had shown touches of genius, but seemed impervious to the inner torment that defined his countryman, for better or worse. There was something unremittingly efficient about his prowess. He was a record breaker who felt a genuine passion for his craft […]

But …

Reading the numerous interviews he gave at the time, when he was still only eighteen years old, I can’t help but notice how they are almost interchangeable with those he gave when he had become the most potent symbol of Arsenal’s ascent to the summit of English football. He comes across as confident yet humble, is quick to praise others, generous to his coaches, wags a finger at those who belittle the collective nature of the game – he is pitch perfect.

In the end, though, after it all, Philippe Auclair does – I would suggest – pretty much crack with the redemption of that glorious goal against Leeds early in 2012 when Henry was briefly back in an Arsenal shirt.  I’ve always admired Thierry’s relatively restrained goal celebrations – the slide of pride on his knees after the poetry in motion.  This is how Auclair reads it:

… it is clear that his inability to enjoy the ecstasy of scoring accompanied him to the last, with the glorious exception of the goal he scored against Leeds United on his brief return to Arsenal in 2012. As he put it in a Sun column, dictated late in 2008, ‘what happens is that I don’t understand euphoria’. How sad that sentence was, how revealing too; and as ever, his father Tony’s shadow loomed large in the background.

Growing up in the banlieues, the housing projects ringing Paris, with his divorced father as mentor, Thierry would ride home with his dad after a game in which he’d scored a hatful of goals only to be chided for the mistakes he’d made.  It’s an engrossing story, even if Auclair says he always thought of the book as “a biographical essay rather than a biography” and there’s a lot about the author’s take on football in his subject’s era.  There are no great personal tabloid-style revelations, though the book does ask questions about Henry’s relationship with some of his contemporaries like Zinedine Zidane, who apparently hardly ever passed to him.  It’s an unofficial biography which Thierry was always aware of but never interfered with – Auclair talked to a lot of his friends in the game – a fact the author says is atypical in the milieu but typical of Henry’s generosity of spirit, a generosity often criticised in the game as … self-serving.  As the author points out more than once, at a certain level, you just can’t win.

What Auclair brings to the table that is revealing is the French perspective, how our man is viewed in his own country.  Where the ‘hand of the devil’  incident that kept Ireland out of the 2010 World Cup Finals – that blatant hand ball owned up to after the event but unbelievably missed by the officials – is seen as a humiliating and embarrassing moral failure in the context of the hopes for French society that the unexpected 1998 victory of Les Bleus promised – a rainbow nation of blacks, bleus et beurs – and the shambles of the current national squad.  And then the disaster of the team’s actual performance at the finals and its unedifying behaviour behind the scenes made it worse.  Auclair is unequivocal in his disappointment with and condemnation of Henry’s abdication and betrayal of responsibility as a senior professional, choosing to be uninvolved, remote, just looking the other way as the mayhem unfolded.

There is something refreshing about Auclair’s whole approach.  As evidence of his championing of the idea of the greatness – a term he spends some time on – of a particular Arsenal team he cites the first half of a game they lost.   He complains about a lot of football writing that “… logic is often picked out of thin air where there is none to be found. I am increasingly worried by the contemporary trend […] of denying that football is inherently chaotic.”  He stresses how hard Henry has worked at his game, his love of football, his never forgetting favours, his love of Arsenal, that he has seldom ceased to care.  You can feel for the man, when, now playing for Barcelona, the inevitable nightmare of his new club being drawn against Arsenal in a European Cup quarter-final comes about.  For all the author’s reservations this is a book full of understanding, an ultimately affectionate portrait full of admiration for a great footballer and a basically decent man.  I’ll be surprised if I ever read another football book as good as this, never mind one that moves me quite as much.  One last resonant thought: “I never heard Thierry curse, not once.”  Class.

Scribal Jan 2013January’s Scribal Gathering was another goodie.  Putting on the glasses for full effect,  Shadwell Smith‘s rendition of his Philip Larkin lookalike pome was a real tour de force, as funny as it sounds (and he really did), while the ‘artist formerly known as Keith’ lead us a merry dance into strange territory with his willful confusion of the Marx Brothers and The Ramones.  The kazoo wielding trio that is The further adventures of Vodka Boy gave us obscure covers that I’d never heard of but shone with their own compositions, the witty Humanist love song (love song natural event clichés accompanied by scientific explanation) and the torrid laugh-aloud  Drunk poet blues which came complete with specific local references (a true story, I was assured).  Good too to hear in the open mic session some hard acoustic blues-based stuff from the accomplished Ulysses (who hit those strings hard) and Amelia (who hit her notes just fine); they might even have had a band name, but I missed it.

Quorn Best of British sausagesFinally, and apropos of nothing whatsoever to do with Philip Larkin that I could find (though he might well have written of the pleasures of said foodstuffs, albeit ones of the carnivore variety) … a vegetarian sausage to challenge the status of those bearing Linda McCartney’s name on the box.  To misappropriate the words of Captain Beefheart, Quorn Chef’s Selection Best of British Sausages are indeed ‘the best batch yet’; we found them in Sainsburys.  Succulent.

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This photo has absolutely nothing to do with what’s written here unless you’ve got a lot of imagination; you could call it a found Rorschach Test. It’s a big piece of wood outcast in the rain from a renovation going on down the road from us of what used to be a Working Man’s Club. I see Munch’s Scream, or something out of myth, Grimm or fable.

Woke up, got out of bed.  Dragged … myself downstairs.  And had a cup.  Nobody spoke and I went into a relatively rapid weight reduction session with Private Eye as my reading matter.  Booted up WiiFit, achieved the grand old WiiFit age of 39, which is ancient for me; I usually score in the mid-20s, or at the very least half my age (which, to be honest, is not hard to do).  Nevertheless, not only did I complete Bubble Balance Plus for just the second time ever but I beat my previous best by a massive 30 seconds.  Accusations of performance enhancing  drugs would have been perfectly understandable, but one of the great lessons of life to be had from WiiFit is that the experience gained from a dispiriting history of pathetic failure can suddenly blossom into a spectacular one-off feat of athletic triumph.  (Of course, there’s the depression that follows when you never get anywhere near again but one develops strategies to overcome that, like never doing it again).

So the day – Monday, October 29 – augured well, and off to that London and the affluent tree-lined avenues of Maida Vale (which, as it happens, is not that far from the streets of Willesden Green – that’s a Kinks reference for the mystified).  I’m early, so  I go on a preliminary recce to make sure I know exactly where the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios are before grabbing a swift half, only to find already standing in line a small select and eminently friendly group of hardkore Kinks fans with an age range taking in, I suspect, all five decades.  Good people.  Some of the usual suspects are known to me and I feel a bit of a fraud joining them to tell the truth, not having seen anything, save fleetingly on YouTube, of Ray Davies‘s recent UK tour but I decide to stay anyway and make sure of getting in.

We are gathered for a recording of one of the shows going in the new Mastertapes series for BBC Radio 4.  The concept is artists being interviewed by one John Wilson  about a career defining album, followed up by a (pre-selected) Q&A session with the audience, the artist performing the odd song in the process too.  Ray has chosen two albums, Lola vs Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One, an angry look at the music business and his last proper album with the Pye label, and Muswell Hillbillies, his first album with RCA, albums from the period when The Kinks were re-establishing themselves in America.

We have to hang around longer than expected outside, some of the time in gentle un-forecasted rain, then proceed through a series of mini-queues in the labyrinths of the building, to arrive in a studio with the geometry of a school gym – you wondered where the basketball baskets were.   After a false start, Ray comes in, passes close by where I’m sitting and it’s clear there’s no oil painting growing old up in the loft; after four weeks of touring he’s looking his age – 68 – and it’s hard to reconcile the energetic leaping figure of report at the recent shows.   I’m not the only one thinks he’s looking tired, a flash of frailty.  And later, worryingly, applause seems to cause him actual – fingers in ears – physical pain.   But he’s animated and engaging, increasingly relaxed as the chat gets going.  For the music he’s accompanied by his main man these last seven years or so, Bill Shanley, and the ‘youngster’ James Walbourne, so when they play it’s as an acoustic three guitar ensemble; it’s obvious they take joy from playing together.  Bill stays on stage throughout, strumming illustratively on cue when appropriate.  With a seated audience of only just over a hundred, musically this is a big deal.

It’s a strange experience, the public interview.  It can easily turn into a routine performance and certainly some of what was said was familiar, covering old ground, but there were passages of value that developed naturally out of the conversation.  Anecdotage and explanations old and new, words of wisdom and flannel.  I wish I’d taken a few notes.  There were resonant phrases I thought I’d easily hold but so much was said the specific words have gone now.  One hopes they’ll be included when edited down for the broadcast, for which there is as yet no date.

What exactly did he say about English melancholy?  It was eloquent for sure, delivered with that serious grin; maybe, “Don’t be afraid of melancholy”?  I’d like to have it down.  Advice to songwriters: don’t be afraid to fail, get a good lawyer (and not one who says, Would you like to hear one of my songs?).  Was he ever anxious about having song-block, decent stuff just not coming? – he was anxious about everything.  The satisfaction of re-taking America.  His surprise when John Wilson recited the lyrics of Have a cuppa tea, how good they sounded.  Going to see someone like John Lee Hooker he wants to hear it rough and ready, mistakes and all.  Stressing he’s not a musician, he’s an artist.  A neat aside, from hommage to frommage.  Reading Stanislavski’s An actor prepares right back near the beginning of it all.  And much, much more.  (Oddly, wishing he was left-handed.  Why? – Paul McCartney.  But that came near the end of a long afternoon.)

The voice hasn’t gone, like Dylan’s, but these last four hard weeks of touring have taken a toll of the high notes and its power.  He’s helped along with harmonies and high notes from his musical confrères.  The songs were a delight.  A lovely Long way from home, written initially as a warning to his brother.  This time tomorrow, sentiments still ongoing.  Muswell Hillbilly.  A rollicking Gotta be free.   Earlier, dipping into the never performed in public before Here come the people in grey [or so it was, claimed … but see Bill Orton’s comment below].  It was great to be there.

I think i’ll call this one Autumn Almanac; it’s a connection at least.

Going home, there’s absolutely no movement of trains out of Euston for a long time – someone hit by a train in the vicinity of Kings Langley apparently –  but I’ll not dwell on that.

Yesterday (Tuesday) evening, writing most of this, I’d forgotten all about the football.  This morning I wake up to discover Arsenal, from 4-0 down, beat Reading 7-5 in a humdinger of an epic cup game.  Glad I didn’t ‘watch’ it via one of those witty online commentaries.  The Guardian reporter finishes with, “It’s a game that will live long in the memory.”  I feel that way about Monday in Maida Vale.  Oh, and Ray, here’s an idea for a song with plenty of potential: apparently some Arsenal fans left in disgust or despair at half-time – how does that feel now?

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